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Livestock Industry


LIVESTOCK INDUSTRY. The livestock industry has played an important role in America's economic development. It involves raising the animals, which include cattle, swine, sheep, horses, and to a lesser extent, goats and mules, and the processing of the animal products for consumers. (Fowl and fur animals are not considered livestock.) The history of American livestock begins with the European exploration of the New World, but the place and date usually accepted for the start of an organized effort to maintain herds is the establishment of Jamestown in 1607.

Early America

In colonial times livestock was dependent on free grazing. Animals were allowed to roam and forage in the forest. Despite the presence of predators the domestic animals thrived; only sheep needed constant care. Swine did particularly well in the New World, and by the eighteenth century they were classified as vermin in some areas.

After the Revolution the free range evolved into a more stable farming environment, and science and technology began to change agriculture. Agricultural state societies were formed, colleges began to include agricultural studies, and several related journals appeared. The Ohio Valley emerged as the center of the livestock industry, although the South and Northeast were still important livestock areas. Most farmers hired men to drive their livestock to market even after railroads began to appear because the rail rates were expensive and dangerous for the livestock. Further, they often used the slow trip east to allow their stock to fatten.

As the frontier moved west, so did the livestock industry. Not everyone succeeded: the industry was reliant on the environment and weather. A bad corn harvest meant less food for swine, resulting in earlier butchering and lower prices. Diseases such as hog cholera or tick fever in cattle could decimate entire herds. Events such as the California gold rush also created boom-bust cycles. Mining towns sprang up and created a demand for livestock, but many of the towns dried up just as fast.


The slaughtering, butchering, and packing aspects of the livestock industry developed along the same lines. Besides slaughtering on an as-needed basis, people slaughtered excess animals every winter, usually animals they could not support through the winter. People used hooves, tallow, and hides for trade items and made jerky from some of the meat, but a good deal of the animal went to waste. Pork preserved the best. The earliest pork packer, William Pynchon, began his business in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1660. The pork was rubbed with salt, molasses, and black gunpowder and stored in barrels called hogsheads. These activities also shifted west as the frontier moved.

The livestock industry began to change after the Civil War due to the differences between farming and ranching and also because of technological advances. Most of the myths and lore of the West are rooted in the image of the ranch and the cattle drive. Ranchers, sometimes called cattle barons, held huge tracts of land and animals. (Robert Kleburg's 1940 Texas ranch was over 900,000 acres, making it larger than Rhode Island.) Among the technological advances of the late 1800s were barbed wire, the gas tractor, silage, and improved veterinary medicine. Scientists discovered that certain disease-carrying insects, such as the cattle tick, operated in vectors.

As the demand for beef increased, a distribution system developed to move beef east. Some attempted to take advantage of the railways, which had expanded at a rapid pace, and the new types of refrigerated cars. Georgia Hammond, in Chicago, made the first refrigerated shipment in 1869, and by 1877 Gustavus Swift had joined the refrigerated shipping business. By the turn of the century the largest packers were Swift, Philip and Simeon Armour, Nelson Morris, and two relative newcomers in the Midwest, Cudahy Packers, and Schwarschild and Sulzberger. The five companies' control over the meatpacking industry attracted the notice of the Department of Justice, which launched a number of antitrust violation investigations.

The meatpacking industry also suffered from some of the worst working conditions in American history. Workers held spontaneous walkouts throughout the 1890s to lobby for better conditions and wages. Efforts to organize meat workers were common. At an 1896 American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention, four men organized the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, the meatpacking industry's first example of organized labor. The Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) improved working conditions, and by 1941 workers received time and a half for working more than forty hours a week. By 1945 collective bargaining was established. Many of the trials of the meat workers can be found in Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel The Jungle (1906), which set out to expose the abuses and conditions in meatpacking. Despite rebuttals by companies, Sinclair's book helped lead to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both in 1906.

During the Great Depression, the government helped the livestock industry by initiating tariffs and opening public lands for grazing. Livestock producers also began

to experiment with cross breeding. In the late 1930s, for example, Texas rancher Thomas Lasater crossbred short-horns, Herefords, and Brahmans, creating the Beefmaster breed.

Postwar Developments

World War II brought economic recovery but also rationing and price freezes. The postwar boom, however, meant prosperity and improvements in transportation, including the refrigerated truck, which helped suppliers meet consumer demand. Preservation methods also improved. In 1940, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the use of nitrates, Hormel developed a canned ham, and prepackaged sliced bacon was introduced.

Feedlots also grew in the postwar years. Ranchers and farmers realized that cattle that are fed grains yield a higher-grade beef than grazing produces. As a result, companies built huge feeding complexes that handled as many as 50,000 animals a year. By 1963 the USDA estimated that 9 million cattle were on feed. Slaughterhouses also benefited from technology and automation. However, the industry remains subject to the same dangers. In the 1970s the fluctuations in the economy and bad weather forced the price of grain to rise. Disease continues to play a role in the livestock industry. In the late twentieth century mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and foot-and-mouth disease decimated English stockyards.

Livestock industries have also come under fire by animal rights groups for a variety of reasons. Further, the industries' use of chemicals, such as growth hormones, to preserve and generate greater yields has generated concern and condemnation from health organizations. Despite its checkered history the livestock industry remained strong through the 1990s.


Corey, Lewis. Meat and Man: A Study of Monopoly, Unionism, and Food Policy. New York: Viking, 1950.

Skaggs, Jimmy M. Prime Cut: Livestock Raising and Meatpacking in the United States, 1607–1983. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986.

Lisa A.Ennis

See alsoAgriculture ; Cattle ; Cattle Associations ; Cattle Drives ; Hogs ; Horse ; Jungle, The ; Meat Inspection Laws ; Meatpacking ; Sheep .

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